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Connecting the Community through Sport

Posted: 07-Aug-2019 by All Abilities

"Who here has ever played community sport?

Ok, and who of you can remember the score of every game you’ve ever played? The finishing time for every race you’ve ever run? How many laps you’ve ever swum for a particular stroke?

Who remembers (hopefully fondly) at least one member in your team? Crazy pranks you might’ve gotten up to? That sense of camaraderie from being part of a group with shared interests? Perhaps you still keep in touch with some of those people?

There’s no denying that sport is a great way to forge social connections and have fun, whilst improving your fitness at the same time.

But time and time again we are shown that people with a disability are less likely to be physically active than the rest of the community. It can be hard to get exact statistics. Some research only counts physical activity if it elevates your heart rate significantly, whereas others are more open-minded in their definition of activity. Some will track the disability numbers separately depending on if the individual requires additional support to participate in an activity, whereas others count the broader definition. But no matter which statistics you look at, there is a constant, and that is that people with a disability have lower participation rates in sport and active recreation than their peers do. Now I’m not going to talk about the impact on physical wellbeing – we all know that – but rather, I want you to consider the impact on social and cultural connections.

In a world that is seemingly so connected with technology, loneliness is a growing epidemic. Having the opportunity to build meaningful relationships and actively participate in a community is more valuable than ever. Sport is a great way for this to happen.

I want to share a quick story with you, sent to me by a parent, early on in my time at Maccabi.

She said, “[my daughter] began her involvement with Maccabi All Abilities a few months back. It began when she was being picked up from Respite…and the All Abilities group were starting their fortnightly walk from the same venue. One of [her] friends asked if [she] could join. I hadn’t thought this would be possible as [she] needs one to one support 24 hours a day. Needless to say this was the first of many sessions where [my daughter] has not only been fully supported but has spent the sessions engaged with peers, valued for her input and involved in community life. This is an amazing change in [her] life as before at this time, [she] would have been alone at home. Now she is part of a social group, and I have the confidence that she is well supported and enjoying her time there.”

This story highlights a few key things that I hear time and time again from participants and especially their families. That organised programs, such as sport, are a great way for them to meet people with shared interests. That as a result, they feel like a valued part of a community. And that without structured activities, they would often be at home alone, because whilst they are happy to attend programs, they are often not as confident in trying to make social plans themselves.

For those who don’t know, Maccabi is a worldwide Jewish organisation, and the Jewish community is quite a unique entity. It’s like a special club where you’re surrounded by family (the ones you love, the ones you bicker with, and those distant cousins you never see); the food is amazing; and you know you that despite the politics, racism and hatred going on in the world, you will find someone who has your back, wherever you go. That’s a pretty powerful feeling.

Maccabi Australia exists to promote Jewish identity and continuity, and connect the Jewish community through sport. It gives people a chance – at any stage of life – to get involved in sport and recreation at local, state, national, and even international level. It gives kids at non-Jewish schools the opportunity to connect with their Jewish peers; it gives uni students the chance to be youth leaders at our national sports carnivals; it gives athletes of all ages the chance to represent Australia at international sporting events; and our Friends of Maccabi group gives people the chance to stay connected, long after they finish playing sport.

Through sport, Maccabi provides a non-religious avenue to connect with the Jewish community. For some people this will sit alongside their involvement with Jewish schools, synagogues and other community organisations. But for some people, this is their avenue. And that’s no different for individuals with a disability. Sometimes people go to a secular special school and want Jewish friends. Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable with the idea of connecting through a religious body like a synagogue but still want to be part of the community. Sometimes people want the opportunity to give back to their community through volunteer and leadership roles.

We all know that sport is about much more than who wins the game. We wouldn’t be in this room otherwise. We know that sport is about fun and friendship and mental health and overall wellbeing and building skills and nurturing friendships and finding valued roles within a community. That’s the same for everyone, but it’s often magnified for a demographic that doesn’t necessarily have as many opportunities.

When I asked one of our participants to sum up how she feels about Maccabi, she said this: “I love Maccabi because it means I’m with friends and mentors.  I particularly love playing basketball. I am proud to be part of Maccabi because they do good programmes - basketball, skiing, lawn bowls, and footy where I help out the training sessions … with pumping up footies and filling water bottles. I like the fact that it's a Jewish club…Maccabi has made a difference in my life as I love sport and am able to keep active and develop friendships through the clubs.”

I love what she shared as it shows not only her love of playing sport, but also how she has made friends, connected with her community and found a really important and valued role within the mainstream football club.

Our All Abilities program exists to provide opportunities for people with a disability in the Jewish community to participate in sport and active recreation in whatever way is right for them. This might be through one of our specific All Abilities training sessions or activities, it might be through volunteering with either our program or one of Maccabi Victoria’s 20+ other clubs, or it might be through getting involved with a mainstream club as an athlete. The way our membership currently stands, we mostly work with individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, though we welcome everyone in our community who feels they need some additional support to be able to get involved in sport and recreation.

Keeping that in mind, we therefore have the challenge that we are working with quite a small population. By the time you look at members of the Melbourne Jewish community who have a disability and are keen to get involved in sport, we’ve narrowed it down a fair bit. So how do we manage?

As a standalone program, we can survive just doing our own thing. But to truly thrive, we need to take advantage of numerous partnerships. To truly give our members the chance to improve their wellbeing, social connections, and cultural and community involvement, we need to draw on what else is out there in our big, sometimes dysfunctional, Jewish ‘family’.

We are lucky enough to be a disability focused program that’s attached to a mainstream organisation, so naturally that’s our first point of call.

Our mainstream Maccabi clubs are many and varied – ranging from a small water polo club with only a couple of teams, to a basketball club that boasts over 500 players every season. Through these clubs we have been able to help our members get involved in sport and recreation, just like anyone else in the community who wants to take part. We’ve had clubs run or assist with running events specifically for our All Abilities members, such as our annual lawn bowls day. We’ve had clubs who have helped find valued and meaningful volunteer roles for our members, like our junior and senior footy clubs have done. And we’ve had some of our members get involved in mainstream clubs like tenpin bowling as athletes, because why shouldn’t they?!

But sometimes we need to think outside the box to work out how we can provide these opportunities when we are working with a small population and limited resources. I am part of an informal group called the JDN – the Jewish Disability Network. It’s a space where representatives from the disability organisations in the Jewish community have the chance to share ideas, and collaborate on programs and activities that will enhance participation, as well as joining forces to improve disability advocacy and education within the community.

Don’t get me wrong – we still collaborate with other sporting and disability sporting organisations. We understand that the Jewish community doesn’t exist in a bubble, and we embrace the fact that we can host (and participate in) basketball tournaments each year; that we can have some of our swimmers go diving with DDA; and that we can call on organisations like Disability Sport and Rec, and AAA Play for advice and support. But there’s that extra something special when we can give our members a way to get involved in the Jewish community. We are a very community-minded people, and a disability definitely shouldn’t stop someone from taking part in community life.

I want to share 3 quick examples of how we have worked to partner with other organisations whose focus isn’t physical activity, to give our members the chance to build their social connections and community ties through sport, and show that sometimes looking within your community can help build your programs in ways you might not have thought about.

Firstly - Maccabi Australia holds an annual national junior sporting carnival. It’s open to kids aged 12-16 and each year hundreds of kids get involved. One of our all abilities members really wanted to go to Carnival, but neither he nor his mum were comfortable with him doing it on his own. We reached out to our broader networks in the community and found him suitable buddies and host families, and he loved his Carnival experiences in Melbourne (twice!), in Sydney and in Perth. He was most disappointed when I told him he was too old to go this year!

Second - each year, we take our members to the football, thanks to the AFL community ticketing program. As I’m sure you understand, taking a group of anywhere from 10 – 20 individuals with varying disabilities and support needs to the MCG can be a huge task. And that’s before you factor in train line closures, of which there were many this year! The solution? We partnered with another organisation – in this case it was Access Inc. – to ensure the day ran smoothly. Access focuses on building vocational and life skills in post-school age participants, and we share a lot of the same members. So how did that help? Aside from sharing the staffing load – which is always a benefit – their focus on day to day skills meant that many of the participants were comfortable on public transport, and knew how to top up their own Myki. That might seem like nothing to us, but trust me, one of our footy-goers was so proud of doing it himself that he was almost as excited to tell his dad that as he was the outcome of the game!

Third - this year, we are trying something new. We had a parent tell us that their adult child would love to go skiing. Sounds great! Perfect for winter and the perfect activity for a sports organisation. But hold on – we’ve never run an All Abilities overnight camp before. That’s not our domain. Enter Flying Fox. Flying Fox specialise in running respite camps and weekends away for kids and young adults with a disability. This trip is the perfect opportunity to combine our areas of expertise, and give our snow-loving members the chance to hit the slopes.

Going to something like Junior Carnival, spending an afternoon at the footy and heading off to the snow in winter are things that many of us take for granted. They’re not only ways for us to get involved in sport and recreation, but also ways we can connect with other people. The people we share the experience with, and also the people we can talk about the experience with after. It gives kids at school the chance to talk about shared activities on their summer holidays; it gives our members the chance to be part of a crowd who is cheering for their favourite team; and it gives young skiers the chance to be one of many finding their feet on the snow. It gives them a chance to be part of a group whose focus is on being involved with sport like anyone else, and not being an “other”.

So what does this mean for you? Look at what community you’re a part of, and work out how you can utilise that network to provide more opportunities for engagement. Think outside the box and look at how non-sport organisations can help you deliver your programs. And remember that sport is a vehicle not only for physical activity and wellbeing, but also plays a huge part in social connection and community participation.

I think Nelson Mandela said it best when he said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair… It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”"

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